Thursday, April 7, 2011

Das Boot

Wolfgang Petersen's Hollywood career has been pretty thoroughly mediocre, but he made a pretty outstanding film in Das Boot, a story about a German U-boat crew's mission and the struggles they go through. The cut I watched was well over three hours long and except for a few scenes takes place mostly within the claustrophobic confines of the submarine, as the crew men go about their lives. They joke around, butt heads, become friends, and share moments of triumph or terror depending on how well their journey is going. Although the film is sympathetic to Germans it is far from pro-Nazi, which is a distinction that helps you root for the characters despite knowing they were on the wrong side of the war. In the end, the soldiers fighting a battle usually don't have a lot to say about the actual conflict behind their fighting, and with sub crews being notoriously indifferent to Hitler in real life, it's a way to show how despite everything, we're all just people with fears and hopes. The way that the tone of the ending conflicts with the content totally works and encapsulates this whole idea very well.

It's also just a really enjoyable, tense war film, despite the length and lack of real action. The U-boat engages in a number of small skirmishes but they're over very quickly compared to how much time is spent establishing the stakes, preparing for action, and responding when something goes wrong. They hardly get through any action unscathed, and the divide between anguished waiting and frantic action before and after receiving a blow is a pretty masterfully played note every time it comes up. A lot of emotional ground is covered, and there are some really good performances among the central characters that make the whole thing seem more real. And the beards, man. The whole crew grows beards over the course of their voyage, and they are essential to the film's brilliance. Never forget those beards.

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